Even after Ingmar Guandique's conviction, the Chandra Levy saga is all about Gary Condit
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Soon after Chandra Levy's remains were discovered deep in Rock Creek Park on a May morning eight years ago, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call broke what appeared to be a big story. A Salvadoran illegal immigrant named Ingmar Guandique had been attacking women in the park around the time of Levy's disappearance a year earlier.
Charles H. Ramsey, then the D.C. chief of police, quickly warned reporters covering the case that they were on the wrong track, that they shouldn't make "too big a deal" of Guandique. Ramsey's second in command went even further. If Guandique were a viable suspect, Terrance W. Gainer told reporters, D.C. detectives would have been on him "like flies on honey."
With those assurances, the reporters shifted their attention back to the man many of them thought to be responsible all along: Democratic Rep. Gary Condit of California. The possibility that a married congressman might have had a hand in the murder of his mistress provided the police with a compelling investigation and the press with an irresistible, career-changing story.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted Condit to be the guy.
This past Monday, following a month-long trial and 3½ days of deliberation, D.C. jurors found Guandique guilty on two counts of first-degree murder for killing Chandra Levy during a daytime robbery. Even though the verdict officially exonerates Condit after so many years of living under suspicion, the former congressman remains at the center of the story.
Network news shows are competing for the right to broadcast Condit's first post-verdict television appearance. A Hollywood lawyer is shopping Condit's book proposal, purportedly detailing his love for his wife and how his life was shattered by overzealous police, prosecutors and the press. A movie deal can't be far behind.
In 2001, Condit was a person of interest in the Levy case. Today, he still is - not only because his name will be forever linked to the saga in the public imagination, but also because the obsession with him derailed the investigation and delayed justice for years.
When Washington Post investigative editors Jeff Leen and Larry Roberts assigned us to take a year and examine the entire case in 2007, we tried to keep an open mind about who may have killed Levy.
First, there was Condit, who had never been publicly exonerated by D.C. police. Some detectives thought he had motive, means and a cast of loyalists around him who might have wanted to make a messy situation for a married man disappear.
Guandique was also worth another look. He had attacked women in Rock Creek Park around the time Levy vanished on May 1, 2001. When his name first emerged in the news media in connection to the case in 2002, Washington Post reporters spoke to his landlady - before the police interviewed her - and she recalled that he had scratches and bruises on his face about the time of Levy's disappearance.
Other possibilities merited attention: a man Levy met in Washington; associates from her Connecticut Avenue gym; a man convicted of killing a jogger in the Maryland section of Rock Creek Park. Or maybe the killer had never surfaced on the radar of the police or prosecutors; perhaps he or she was a confidante or a stranger, someone Levy met in a bar, in her building, in her neighborhood.
Yet, from the beginning, D.C. police, federal prosecutors and the national press corps had been consumed with Condit. Days after Levy donned her gym clothes, left her Dupont Circle apartment and was never heard from again, police sources began leaking to reporters about the congressman's months-long affair with the intern for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Between May 11, 2001, when the first stories about Levy appeared, and Sept. 11, when the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon wiped the case off the front pages and the evening news, the phrase "law enforcement sources" was cited at least 338 times in newscasts and newspaper stories about Levy and Condit.